Just Show Up

The key to success for progressives will be to capitalize on the power of those bodies that were present at recent protests, including at the women’s marches.

By David S. Cohen and Tabatha Abu El-Haj

Tagged Donald TrumpProteststea party

Just over a week ago, we witnessed the visible power that comes when majorities dissent. Millions of people took to the streets—and to airports!—to deliver a powerful statement against sexism, racism, and corruption, and in favor of inclusivity and democracy. Not even the greatest optimist could have predicted just how many people would participate in the global event that was the Women’s March, or the spontaneous protests over the immigration executive orders. Apart from the staggering numbers, the colorful signs and frequently poignant symbolism provided a window into the concerns of the majority of voters. Elected officials in Washington would be hard pressed not to have noticed that the new President’s mandate is not at all a broad one. In fact, Trump’s obsessive tweets, comparing the crowd size of his inauguration to past inaugurations, would suggest Trump himself may have taken note.

Even when the numbers are staggering and the signs and symbolism a poignant window into the concerns of the majority of voters, massive protests in themselves do not produce responsiveness, accountability or change. Thus, for those who protested in opposition to the executive orders, like for those coming home from last Saturday’s historic Women’s March, the burning question is: Now what?

To capitalize on this incredible moment, the dissenting majority will need to keep doing this most basic of political acts—showing up. From Rosa Parks to the Tea Party, we’ve seen that, when people lend their bodies to the political cause at hand, they can capture the attention of policymakers and fellow citizens alike. Movements today have many tactics at their disposal—from making phone calls to their representatives and encouraging others to follow suit to generating signatures for online petitions to posting and sharing information on social media.

But, as the Tea Party showed with its incredible rise to power, it is by fighting battles there, in person, that (what started out as) a small movement can put a celebrity businessman in the White House. Who knows who might just be next? That movement proved its power in the summer of 2009 when its activists showed up, wherever politicians were, to protest, whether it be against the stimulus package, the auto bailout, or the supposed threat of government-run health care. The movement then built on these confrontations with politicians by eventually navigating state party machines, getting out the vote for local elections, and even running for office themselves. But the important lesson from that movement, as well as from other successful social movements throughout American history, from the colorful pageants of the suffrage movement to the recent stand-off over the Dakota Pipeline (which would certainly already be underway otherwise), is the importance of simply being present, not just in cyberspace and not only as a voice on the other end of the phone line, but in one place, outside, with bodies joined.

But where might people be able to do this? Politicians hold all sorts of public events—whether that be speeches, forums, community meetings or town halls. If just a tiny fraction of the people who were in the streets in recent days were equally present every single time any member of Congress holds one such event, the effect would be monumental. For instance, earlier this month in Colorado, Representative Mike Coffman held an event where he was confronted with an overflowing crowd of people demanding to question him about why he wanted to take away their health care. He was so overwhelmed by this incident that he had to sneak out the back door, but was still caught exiting on camera. Or consider the deer-in-the-headlights look from House Speaker Paul Ryan when he was confronted at a live-on-CNN town hall by a Republican who said he supported the Affordable Care Act because it literally saved his life after he was diagnosed with cancer. Replicating these in-person confrontations will be essential in the coming months.

Other forms of organizing in the wake of the march—registering people to vote, calling members of Congress, having difficult conversations, and more—matter immensely. No one can argue with that. But the key to success will be to capitalize on the power of those bodies that were present at recent marches; and this is perhaps more true and more vital now than ever. The decision-makers in this country need to face an onslaught of constituents demanding to be heard. This is true not just for federal policymakers, but for state decision-makers and party officials as well, especially considering they are the ones who determine congressional districts or how many candidates to permit on the primary ballot.

The presence of bodies by those on the left is also, in this age, highly symbolic. Central to the opposition movement is the overwhelming concern that President Trump and his Republican Party want to take control of women’s bodies, lock up those of people of color, and physically remove from this country those of immigrants. In short, Trump’s message is a simple one—the only bodies that matter are those of white males. So when all of these groups and their allies put their bodies in the streets, in front of politicians, and on camera, it sends a clear message: We demand that all bodies be respected and treated equally. It marks a defiant rejection of a politics that tries to marginalize the bodies of those with lesser power.

So how can we make sure such actions are continued after the post-march excitement dies down? Mobilizing significant numbers of people is unquestionably hard. The key will be to draw upon the social networks that brought forth this first step and build upon the relationships and connections forged. But for individuals who do not have easy access to such networks, the work must also start locally. The next time there is a meeting nearby, a march, or a public appearance by a politician, ask a friend—preferably one who did not show up to recent marches—to come along. Be there in person, with others, and hold politicians accountable. Make sure they answer questions from you and from those around you. Then, come out, with everyone you know, to vote for state and local primary and general elections, not just federal ones. Because when people show up, they’re that much more difficult to ignore.

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David S. Cohen and Tabatha Abu El-Haj are professors of constitutional law at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

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